A Moment with: Enam Gbewonyo
For this month's Sunday Edition, we introduce you to London-based contemporary textile and performance artist, Enam Gbewonyo. Enam first came to our attention at ‘Christie’s Lates: Women in the Arts’, event last year. Like Enam, our investigations into textiles, surface and materiality play a fundamental role in the creative design process here at Turnbull. Meticulous research and a reinterpretation of the past in a contemporary context, whilst staying true to tradition, is also something that spoke to us strongly from Enam's work. Set to perform at Two Temple Place this Spring, however, due to the lockdown it has since been postponed, we caught up with Enam at home to discuss her artistic practice, her Ghanaian heritage, and the materiality of tights.
Among the influences evident in your work, it’s clear that your heritage plays a significant role in your processes and creative output. Can you tell us more about this, and what it means to you?
(Left) Enam Gbewonyo. (Right) Enam's, Teetering on the edge of visibility, the invisible disguised as visible IV detail. ©️Jennifer Moyes photography.
My heritage has always been intrinsic to my work, whether I knew it or not. It has only recently dawned on me just how interlinked my heritage is with my work. I’m a Ghanaian Ewe, and historically the Ewe’s trade was primarily weaving and fishing. We are also storytellers. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that I am both a textile and performance artist. It’s literally in my blood. But there are also a couple of beautiful serendipitous elements to the story that make it extra special.
First, is that as a little girl my mother took me to visit a small weaving community on holiday in Ghana. I remember the feelings wrapped up in the experience. Of being spellbound by the magic of it all. The vats of yarn being bathed in colour. The multicoloured rainbow of dyed yarn drying on handmade racks. But most spellbinding was the act of weaving itself. The weaver was a wizard in my eyes, deftly controlling the loom and the shuttle to create vast lengths of striking cloth. Pure alchemy! I think I carried that magic with me all the while, bedded in my subconscious. The memory came back to me recently, and I realised, while my creative journey, at the time, seemed organic, it was always pre-destined.
The second is a revelation I had in a meeting with an Ewe master weaver, when in Ghana, for a project in 2017. He revealed a long-held myth, passed down from our ancestors; that it was spiders who first taught our tribe to weave. This held such resonance for me, as I had used spider webs as the inspiration for my final year degree project, and I’ve been obsessed with them ever since. Their influence has appeared in my work as sculptural wirework hangings, lace-like tissue paper burnings, crystallised glue pieces and knitted wedding dresses. The latter being the culmination of my degree work.
Enam Gbewonyo, In the Wake of Barely Black, 2019, used tights, cotton hand embroidery and eco-friendly acrylic paint on vintage Cheval mirror frame. ©️Jennifer Moyes photography.
I say all this to say, just as my heritage is woven into the fabric of my being, so too is it woven into the fabric of my doing. That it revealed itself to me in such spiritual ways, just validated my purpose further.
One of the things that initially drew us to your work, was your exploration of texture and performance, and particularly, how they intersect and overlap. How did this approach come about, and what inspired this fusion?
(Left) Enam's The Oculus/The Third Eye, 2019, handknit used and new tights. ©️Jennifer Moyes photography. (Right) Enam performing at Carl Freedman Gallery. Gossamer exhibition opening . ©️Umut Gunduz.
My work revolves around the handcraft processes used to manipulate and create fabric such as knitting, printing, weaving and embroidery. I particularly focus on the materiality and tactility of the surface. I am continuously stretching the parameters of this through the materials I use. The material itself often inspires me, and tights are an exciting medium to work with. Their very nature means they can be twisted and contorted into new shapes and forms. Also, because they are fashioned from nylon it can be burned into, which I do, using incense sticks. This is the easiest way to create controlled permeations and can do so without releasing harmful gases into the air. The calming effect that burning incense creates while I work is another plus – a healing experience. I also cut the tights and stitch them together to make balls of yarn that I use to knit and weave artworks with. Materials such as tissue paper come into play too as crinkling it creates a texture like skin. As my work focuses more on sustainability, I work towards becoming a zero-waste practitioner. Therefore, I incorporate any plastic packaging that comes with the donated tights – samples and test pieces from Sheer Chemistry that led to the development of their product range.
With the depth of research in my work, the different textures reflect layered meanings in various ways. For instance, the burnt holes in the tights mirror laddering, but also represent the damage that constant subjugation has on black women's psyches. Furthermore, the vein-like embroidery and painting effects in many of my works stand for the veins and blood vessels that lie under the skin - hence the body of work's title Nude Me/Under the Skin. By bringing those veins to rest on the surface of the works, it’s a fervent reminder that no matter our skin tone, underneath it all, we are all the same.
Enam's Under the Vein II, detail. ©️Jennifer Moyes photography.
Performance allows me to explore the meanings of my work in a very tangible way. It’s a method that brings you in direct communication with your audience, in a way that the artwork cannot. It is intimate, vulnerable storytelling and hugely challenging for all those reasons. However, it’s a medium that I have completely taken to in the brief time I have been working it into my practice – since late 2018. My performances normally entail traditional Ewe dance and ballet-inspired movement – ballet being another reference in my work. They are either set to music or an audio monologue I recorded a fictional storytelling of four black women’s lives. Their lives link to the eras in history that I research and match the birth dates in my matrilineal line - once again, drawing upon my family. With every performance, I am either activating a pre-existing artwork or creating a live one. This is where texture and performance overlap. Whether it’s an artwork being activated or created, the commonality is that I am in direct conversation with the work. There is a constant call and response between the work and myself.
Enam's, The Oculus/The Third Eye, detail. ©️Jennifer Moyes photography.
As an example, my artwork The Oculus/The Third Eye, which is a length of chunky knit tights I use for the performance piece, Nude Me/Under the Skin: The Awakening of Black Women’s Visibility One Pantyhose at a time. I lay it on the floor in an oval-shaped spiral with space in the middle so it looks like an eye. It symbolises a portal to channel my ancestors - hence the artwork's title. There are four binds, again made from tights, which I place in the four corners bordering the work wrapped around a brick weight. The four points, again, mark four women in my matrilineal line, starting with me. Near the start of the performance, I attach the binds to my wrists and ankles and, for much of the performance, move in and around the knit piece with them on. At times, becoming completely entangled, as if trapped and unable to break free. At other points, I kneel in the centre of the work, touching and feeling the knit piece or subtly graze the tights along my body. This is also in response to the audio recording, and my movement becomes a personification of the spoken word.
The word sensual is often linked to my performance. When you think of it in the context of tights, it at once conjures up thoughts of the erotic, femininity, softness, and sexuality. While those things are an element, of course, this conversation between my body – a black woman’s body – and nude tights, stands for a struggle to find my sense of self, my beauty and identity amidst these power structures which inflict a western white beauty standard. An identity, that while I try to conform to, I can never be. In breaking free from those structures, I am free to be my true, authentic self. By bringing the texture of the work into the performance, it activates the touch senses, both of me, the performer, and the audience. Seeing is imagining, the visual push versus pull and a soft versus hard interplay, that takes place between my body and the tights, evokes those feelings in the audience. Thus, translating the varying senses of fear, uncertainty, anger, safety, and peace that my physical body experiences at different points in the performance. It takes the performance experience to a powerful dimension.
Your work beyond your own art involves developing other artists and individuals, as well as championing inclusivity and diversity. How important is community and family in what you do?
Enam performing Nude Me/ Under the Skin: the Awakening of Black Women’s Visibility one Panythose at a time at Venice Biennale, © Michal Murawski
It has become an integral part of my practice in the current body of work I am exploring entitled Nude Me/ Under the Skin, which investigates nude tights. You may not immediately see a link, but my investigation is from the perspective of being a black woman who, up until recently, was not represented by a shade of nude that reflected her skin tone. Not until brands like Sheer Chemistry who I partner with came to be.
The work looks at the history of tights - from its first iteration as stockings invented around the 15th century - and how this history intersects with black women.
Enam's, Teetering on the edge of visibility, the invisible disguised as visible IV, vintage family and erotica photographs on tea stained recycled paper, used tights and cotton thread hand stitching and hand embroidery on tea stained canvas. ©️Jennifer Moyes photography.
One of these points in history is around Windrush and the black nurses of the National Health Service. Following WWII, with the huge loss of lives in Britain’s population, a promotion was made in the ‘Commonwealth’ for the need for nurses to support the NHS. This prompted an influx of African and Caribbean women into the UK, and my mother was one of them. My mother, like all the others bought into the propaganda of being welcomed with open arms but was faced with a stark opposite. What she experienced was severe racism on the wards and in everyday life.
I also look at the direct relationship between Britain's Empire and its role in instigating, participating and profiteering from slavery and colonisation. This led me to reflect on generational trauma, and the lives of my grandmother and great grandmother, both of whom I never met, and who I know little about.
In my family, there were four generations of women who lived during the times of slavery, colonial and post-colonial Ghana and had the diaspora experience. Two arcs immediately came out of this thinking and discovery. The unheard and undocumented stories of generations of black women. Not only were they the building blocks of the British Empire – let’s face it, all Western civilisation - but also modern-day Britain, as well as, communities across Africa and the Diaspora. And of the healing that need to take place in the collective consciousness to free us all from the terrors of our global history. But specifically, in the black community and with our women - the mothers of generations.
My work addresses this by documenting the untold stories of these women. Like the images of my mother as a nurse incorporated into my works, which will grow to include other black women nurses in the community. I also work with used tights. I believe that these tights, which lie on our bodies as we go about our day, absorb the energy of our emotions and experiences. Therefore, our stories are embedded in the fibre. By using tights that I have collected from within the community, they further document black women’s stories.
Enam's performance at Carl Freedman Gallery, Gossamer exhibition. ©️Umut Gunduz.
And then my performance comes in to serve as active spaces of healing. By taking the audience on the journey of reclamation and awakening of self that I enact, it will help them address the trauma that exists within them and deliver them to a place of peace. I would also like to facilitate craft workshops, aimed at bringing together intergenerational groups of black women, to listen, grieve and share their stories. Doing this while actively crafting, creates a meditative, reflective space to encourage healing. This has been my personal experience, the art-making has helped me deal with my traumas, which were often triggered by the extreme darkness I have been working through and uncovering in historical research. My ambition, is that in sharing this gift of handcraft, it helps my community of black women to achieve some level of peace and progression of self.
The BBFA Collective seems to be the embodiment of this. Can you tell us a bit about the origins of the BBFA and its work?
Enam working in her studio. ©️Jennifer Moyes photography.
I founded the Black British Female Artist Collective in 2015, as a direct result of the challenges myself, and peers, experienced in navigating careers in the Western art world. Several barriers prevent black British women artists from achieving career parity, of course, race and gender but also class, age, and sexuality.
The collective consists of members: Adelaide Damoah (painter and performance artist, Ayesha Feisal (painter), Carleen de Sozer (street artist) and myself. As a collective, we exist primarily to support each other in building sustainable careers. However, our long-term goals focus more on the wider artistic community and include; building relationships with black women artists internationally to tackle the challenges they face on regional levels. This is facilitated with cross-cultural artistic projects that connect us with artists from other regions for fellowship and collaboration, like our Dispersed project in Ghana, which was funded by the Arts Council. The collective also works across the education, institutional and commercial spheres to confront the issues that prevent black British women artists from being fairly represented in such spaces. And more importantly, being represented in the right context with a narrative and language that they control. We have started to make inroads in this area, with projects with Tate and several speaking engagements at the likes of South London Gallery, Goldsmiths, and the University of Oxford.
We are also developing ways to build our financial revenue to ensure the legacy of the Collective, so that initiatives such as the incubator programme we hope to establish will support artists for generations to come.
This is just a flavour of the work we are doing and intend to do. It is a cause all four of us are committed to, in the hopes that those coming up after us find the road a little easier to navigate.
What has the lockdown meant for your practice?
Like most people, it’s been both highs and lows. When we first entered the lockdown, I was returning from a performance and artist residency in Morocco. While the residency was cut short, it meant that I was in a positive mindset, which spurred me through the first few weeks. The project I’m working on has now expanded into something exciting, and the motivation to keep working was high. As the weeks went on, it became increasingly challenging for me to find the motivation to keep working. The reality of lockdown began to weigh on me, especially as its effects presented themselves to my family and friends. And I also know people who have passed away.
What I did turn to, however, was the research element of my work. It had me delving into critical texts and books like Decolonising the Mind by Wa Thiongo Ngugi. I’m reading this in a book club with some close friends. We read together on Zoom and analyse as we go along, then set homework to read a few chapters to discuss further in our next meeting. That has carried me through, and I’m back in a space where I’m motivated to be creative again and make work.
While I cannot travel to the studio, I have the tools I took with me to Morocco so fortunately can still make from home. And I can binge-watch my favourite Netflix shows while I am knitting or stitching. Side note: I highly recommend the Spanish series Money Heist!
Enam's lockdown project, featuring secondhand wooden knitting needles.
The break in making also helped me reflect on what I had made and to develop new ideas. This led me to buy a new pair of chunky knitting needles – secondhand and made of wood, I might add. Just one of the ways I am fulfilling my goal to work to sustainably. I am so excited to start knitting with these needles, like nerdy levels of excitement excited! That is all it takes to make me happy, a pair of knitting needles!
Enam Gbewonyo, Woven in the Seams - 'Worn Up, Wound Down’, 2019, used tights on picture frame. ©️Jennifer Moyes photography.
Enam was interviewed a few weeks ago as part of our new ‘Moments With...’ series, which highlights those artists, creatives, inspiring people and subjects that resonate with us at Turnbull. Since then, the world has seen abhorrent racial injustices brought to the fore, and the Black Lives Matter movement gain strength and momentum. We believe that such voices need to be heard, and the issues being raised, confronted and discussed, now, more than ever.
We encourage you to follow Enam’s work, and that of the BBFA. You can find more information here: http://bbfacollective.org/